Monday, July 06, 2009

Elvis Rex

In 1979, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were in at a SNL skit that involved both of them playing Elvis impersonators at the same time, the Elvi. Aykroyd was the svelte, late '50s Elvis; Belushi was something else again. "We try to do the King justice," said Belushi. "I have a 'specially tough time 'cause I'm playin' the latter part of the King's life, after he discovered carbohydrates."

There's no end of possible iterations from the arc of such a lore-encrusted, over-famed life. Tupelo, Mississippi, birthplace of Elvis Presley, will not be denied its Elvi -- which would be the infant and the boy, up until the time when the Presleys up and moved away to Memphis, when the lad was 13. US 45 is the main north-south highway through Tupelo, and the town has made sure that visitors don't need Onstar to find the King's natal site. ELVIS BIRTHPLACE, the signs clearly state, with arrows to direct you, first to an exit from US 45, then eastward on Main Street. One left turn off of Main, onto Elvis Presley Dr., and you're there.

It's actually a kind of mid-sized city park that's been taken over by the Elvis business. The birthplace, a very modest two-room house, is at one corner of the park. Elsewhere are the museum, a fountain, a memorial wall, a chapel, the church that young Elvis attended (brought to the site), the Presleys' mid-40s car or one just like it, and a bronze life-sized statue, "Elvis at 13." Pretty much everything in the park, except for the statue, is larger than the house itself. Even the museum's gift shop is larger.

By the time I got there on the afternoon of June 18, the chapel and the church were closed. I looked at the memorial wall and its anecdotes of Elvis, but skipped the museum, except for the gift shop, where I got Elvis postcards and an Elvis souvenir spoon for Yuriko, who collects spoons, not Elvis bric-a-brac. I also paid $4 to go into the house. I hate the idea that Scientologists might get a bit of the money I spent, since Lisa Marie Presley must surely get some cut, but life is full of niggling compromises. I wanted to see the inside of the house.

All two rooms of it -- a bedroom in period furnishings, and a kitchen, also in period. You wait on the porch until the guide opens the door, and then she gives a short talk about the house and the Presleys. I asked a few questions, as my wont. No, the furniture isn't original. Yes, the house is located in the same place as in 1935. (Presumably, it wasn't on Elvis Presley Dr. in those days.) Yes, Vernon Presley, his dad, went to prison for a little while for minor check fraud. No, three wise men didn't show up at the Presleys in the weeks after his birth. Actually, that last question didn't come up.

"Elvis at 13" is an interesting statue (on this page, toward the bottom), featuring kid Elvis in overalls and clutching his first gee-tar. That was the age at which he moved to Memphis for his date with destiny a few years later at Sun Records. At least, that's what the statue is supposed to suggest.

Instead, it got me in a counterfactual frame of mind. What if Vernon had decided against the move? What if Elvis Presley had grown to manhood in Tupelo? Would he now be a retired truck driver, living in a little house in Tupelo, whose old friends remember him as a pretty good singer, back in the day? Would Mr. Presley smile when seeing clips in black-and-white of the early antics of the late King of Rock 'n' Roll, Jerry Lee Lewis, on late-night oldies record commercials? "Hell, I used to sing like that sometimes, 'cept I never did play the piano."

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At 9:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see on the Tupelo website that the Lee County Library is on the tour of Elvis' sites in town. He got his first library card there. What do you suppose he read? Edgar Rice Burroughs and Kirkegaard, Douglas Southall Freeman and Dostoyevsky? Do they have a display at the library? ANK


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